We’re headed for Game 7 in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. Over the last three nights, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers have traded decisive wins on their home floors to set up the big battle on South Beach on Monday night. Our purpose here is to look back at the lessons of Games 5 & 6, and use those to point ahead to the one-game showdown coming up.
THIRD QUARTER BLOWOUTS
Both Games 5 & 6 followed an odd similarity. In each case, a mostly competitive game was blown open in the third quarter. Miami won the third quarter of Game 5 by a 30-13 margin, wiping out a four-point halftime deficit and winning 90-79. Indiana trailed by a point at intermission of Game 6 and used a 29-15 run in the third period to pave the way to a 91-77 victory.
INDIANA PERSPECTIVE: WHAT BOTHERS ME ABOUT GAME 5
Say what you will about LeBron James’ great third quarter performance. Make no mistake, it was as great as you’ve heard in the national media. He scored 16 of his 30 points, dished four more assists and by all accounts became the vocal leader he’s often been accused of not being. But his final stat line—30 points/8 rebounds/6 assists, was essentially matched by Paul George, who slapped up a 27/11/5. Why then, didn’t Indiana get this win?
The biggest reason is that they didn’t rebound—at least not the way they have in every other series. Indiana only won the battle of the boards by a 33-32 margin. The Pacers need big edges on the glass to win games. That’s why, while Roy Hibbert’s 22 points were great, his six rebounds were woefully inadequate. The reality is this—Indiana can win even if LeBron has a great game. The Pacers just have to win every other battle, which is a tall order, but a realistic one given the talent matchup. They came nowhere close to doing it on Thursday night.
MIAMI PERSPECTIVE: WHAT BOTHERS ME ABOUT GAME 6
When you’re a three-point shooting team, you know you’ll have off games, especially against the good defenses in the playoffs. The media can get all excited if you lose a game or two, but in a best-of-seven, you’re betting that your outside shots come around. Well, for Miami, the shots came around on the road in Game 6. The Heat hit six treys right out of the gate and were 10-of-18 behind the arc. Mario Challmes, Norris Cole and Mike Miler combined to go 5-for-7. Furthermore, LeBron had a 29/7/6. Why then, didn’t the Heat close this out on Saturday night?
Because the problems with constructing a team around three-point shooters became readily apparent. Indiana reasserted itself on the glass, with a monstrous 53-33 advantage. Hibbert was back to being a beast inside, with a 24/11. David West, playing with a respiratory infection grabbed 14 boards, and Lance Stephenson crashed in from the backcourt to pick up twelve more.
If I’m Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, I get that I can’t match up with Hibbert. But are you telling me that Chris Bosh can’t at least fight West to a draw and that nobody can box out Stephenson?. If I’m Spoelstra, I saw my team shoot the ball well from the perimeter and still get beat pretty handily. And that scares me.
LOOKING AHEAD TO GAME 7
Game 7 in the NBA playoffs starts with homecourt advantage, and based on the history of the league—especially the history in marquee matchups—I’d be surprised if Miami loses this game on Monday. But I’m also surprised this game is even being played, and that’s because the Indiana team a lot us knew existed is growing up before our eyes.
Paul George is becoming a player who can at least mitigate LeBron to some extent—not so much stop him, but answer at the other end. The Pacers aren’t settling for three-point shots and are merciless at pounding the ball to Hibbert and West in the paint. They’re allowing their strengths—defense, rebounding and physical post play on the offensive end to carry them and these first six games have demonstrated Miami cannot match up.
But intangibles are also enormous here. Since about the time that Miami found its back to the wall in this same playoff round in Boston a year ago, we’ve seen a different LeBron. Even when he was struggling on Saturday night in Game 6, you could see him embracing the leadership role and looking to will his team to a win. It’s just very difficult to beat a star on his home floor who has that kind of mentality.
Furthermore, I’m concerned that the pressure of this game will cause Indiana to wilt back into some of its bad habits. How will George respond to the biggest game of his life? Will the offense keep going down low to Hibbert? As well as Indiana has matched up with Miami, the Pacers have had plenty of moments where they commit to many turnovers and in general look like an “almost-there-but-not-quite-yet” kind of team. I’ve been saying since last year that they control their destiny—they have the raw material to beat Miami. But they’re still maturing, and I just don’t have a good feeling about where this is going in Game 7.
I’m pulling for Indiana, and if you want to sell me on them as the favorite for next year in the East (pending, obviously the coming offseason moves), I might be ready to bite. I really do think this team is growing up in front of us. But I’m not ready to believe this Miami team, after winning 66 games, embracing all the pressure and having the game’s best player, is going to lose prior to the NBA Finals.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will come back Tuesday morning to rehash Game 7. The Finals begin on Thursday and we’ll have a preview before the final round begins.